Underlying much of the modern culture wars are questions, confusions, and conflict over the nature and possibility of progress, maturity, and excellence. What is possible in this world? And if real cultural progress is possible, how is it possible? For the next several weeks, we will be looking at a series of texts on the pursuit of excellence and maturity. Christianity gives good reasons for optimism, but not for the reasons the world gives.
“For our citizenship is in heaven; from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20 NKJV)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Progress and excellence are words that only make sense if there’s a transcendent standard. What are we pressing for, what are we aiming at? We are aiming at the goal that Jesus aimed for when He saved us and nothing else (3:12). Our initial salvation doesn’t arrive at that perfection, rather, it is the only ground for pressing on, forgetting the things behind and straining to win the prize (3:13-14). This is the mind of Christian maturity: not being satisfied with where we are but pressing on together for that goal (3:15-16). This task includes following the example of others who walk like this (3:17). But many refuse to look beyond this world, and that’s a complete dead end (3:18-19). Christians are colonists of the Kingdom in this world, getting everything ready for Jesus, leaning into the resurrection (3:20-21
FOR WHICH HE LAID HOLD OF YOU
The call to perfection and maturity is a call to the most excellent life in every respect. But sin messes with this: our sin simply weighs us down (Heb. 12:1), but perhaps most deviously, our sin lies to us saying this is as good as it gets, and in the other direction, perfection and holiness aren’t as good as God says. But Paul has just finished saying that nothing in this world compares to the excellence of Christ and the resurrection (Phil. 2:7-11).
For a Christian, aiming for perfection is like aiming for home. Excellence in Christ is what you were made for and saved for. A good deal of our problem with growing in holiness and maturity is our vague and impersonal attempts to be “really good” or “not sin,” which is always a crushing weight, like pushing a rock up a hill only for it to roll back down on you every day. But this is why the first verse of our text is so important for understanding Christian maturity: we are only called to lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of us (3:12). We are only called to seize/win/grasp that for which we were seized/won/grasped by Christ. Paul made the same point in the previous chapter: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
All of the commands of Scripture: love your wife, submit to your husband, obey your parents, bring up your children in the Lord, tell the truth, do not fear, and repent of all your sins and forgive one another – those are commands that Christ has obtained the obedience for. God does not command except what He also has for prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). Just as there is no temptation for which there is no escape (1 Cor. 10:13). If you are in Christ, think of the call to press on toward the prize of perfection in Christ as the gift of learning to drive a fabulous sports car at the Indy 500. All the “rules” are things like: shift your gears like this, make the turn like this, use your brakes like this. Or think of Eric Liddell who said that God made him fast, and when he ran, he felt God’s pleasure. You were made for perfection. You were made for glory.
Paul’s example is still set before us in his letters in the New Testament. Reading the Bible is following examples, putting the lives of the faithful before you as patterns. Do you need to persevere in difficulty? Set Abraham before your eyes. Or meditate on the lives of Moses, Job, or Elizabeth. Do you need wisdom? Consider the lives of Joseph, Solomon, Esther, or Paul. And of course, immerse yourself in the gospels, following the perfect example of Jesus.
But mark the lives of the saints around you as well: Do you see a marriage that is flourishing? Do you see a father delighting in his kids? Imitate them; follow their examples. Ask to talk to them, ask for advice, or invite them over for dinner. Do you see a Christian businessman who is prudent and excelling? Do you see a fruitful wife and mother, full of joy and wisdom? Note them, watch them, talk to them, and learn from them.
And Scripture is clear that wisdom also notes those who are not walking in the light. They are enemies of the cross, who serve their own lusts and appetites, who glory in their own shame – they are proud of their sin. They are obsessed with earthly things. So note this in Cain and Pharaoh and Achan and Ahab and Judas, and note it in those within the church today who are obsessed with what is fair or fads or rumors or fears, or simply muddle along in apathy.
The old King James says our “conversation” is in heaven, but the word has more political connotations than that. “Polituema” is related to the word for citizen, citizenship, and city, and it’s the Greek root for our words “polity” or “politics.” In that Roman world, the concept was well known, especially in Philippi which was a Roman colony. The idea was that colonists went together to establish an outpost of the Empire in order to bring the ways of Rome to a new land. Only here Paul has reoriented the mission. The Philippian Christians are colonists, but they are colonists of Heaven. They are citizens of heaven, assigned to Philippi to establish an outpost for the Empire of Jesus, from which they await the King. We set our minds on things above precisely so we can see that Kingdom come: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore…” (Col. 3:2-5)
The image Paul uses in Philippians 3 – the prize he is pressing toward, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to what is up ahead – this is the image of a race. It could be a foot race, but it could also be a horse race or a chariot race. And given what he says, Christ is the horse who is carrying us to glory. He is our Savior. We cannot lift ourselves or propel ourselves to this maturity or excellence, but we press toward the goal for which Christ has laid hold of us. Don’t look back. Fix your eyes on Jesus, reaching forward toward His glory in your family, your business, the arts, science, technology, our city, our nation, and the world.